Dear Covenant Network friends,
On Saturday, July 26, Vicky and I attended the wedding of Gail Russell and Gerri Mead at Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Their loving bond has been an inspiration for years. Now, at last, it could be blessed officially by both church and state. Gail is Lincoln Park’s Clerk of Session; Gerri, also a Ruling Elder, recently rotated off the Session. They sing in the choir. Together, they are part of the heart and soul of the congregation.
Near the end of the service, just before two dozen children threw confetti over the brides, it was announced that “by the authority of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the State of Illinois…” this was and is a marriage. What a long journey finally to get here.
Lincoln Park’s Pastor Emeritus Jeff Doane was in attendance. Jeff led the congregation to become founding members of the More Light movement. Seventeen years to the day, on July 26, 1997, Jeff co-officiated at Gerri’s and Gail’s covenant ceremony, along with the Revs. Garnett Foster and Bobbi Wells Hargleroad.
Elder Barry Smith was at the organ console, playing the service yesterday. In the early 1980’s, Barry’s installation to the Lincoln Park Session was disallowed because, between his first term and second term on Session, Barry had come out as a gay man — to himself, and to the church. After Presbyterian Reunion, the Presbytery of Chicago said the issue was moot, and charges against the congregation were dropped. Present also at yesterday’s wedding was Barry’s husband, John Hobbs, formerly a PCUSA minister, now a UCC pastor.
This spring, after Illinois approved same-sex marriage in this state but prior to the 221st General Assembly, Gail and Gerri asked permission of the Session for their wedding to be on the anniversary of their covenant. Not yet knowing whether the PCUSA prohibition would be lifted, the Session unanimously approved the wedding to take place on July 26, 2014, even if that would constitute ecclesiastical disobedience.
Gerri’s and Gail’s entire families were present. Their former husbands were there to bless this union, something that didn’t happen in 1997. It was too soon then, too new, too raw. This day, 17 years later, was a celebration of the surprising ways of love and grace. Former spouses, grown children and grandchildren were all there. Several of them sang and played, did readings or prayed. I was struck by the maturity, healing and joy that suffused the entire occasion. It was a beautiful ceremony, a beautiful day.
The most striking moment came near the end: the blessing of the marriage, with the words I have already cited. Lincoln Park’s current pastor, Beth Buckingham-Brown, said that this wedding was performed “by the authority of the State of Illinois.” Just before that, her co-officiant, a longtime friend, supporter and adviser to Gail and Gerri — as to many gay and lesbian couples in our denomination — the Rev. Janie Spahr, declared, “by the authority of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)…” and we all erupted in enthusiastic and sustained applause.
To hear Janie Spahr say “by the authority of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” was a thrill — Janie Spahr, whose call to the Downtown Church of Rochester was disallowed; Janie Spahr, who tirelessly offered pastoral and prophetic ministry within a church that did not want it; Janie Spahr, who exemplified amazing grace, hope and tenacity, continually “personing the issue” while others gave up and went away; Janie Spahr, who twice came within a hair’s breadth of having her ordination rescinded by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission because of her blessing of marriages. This was an historic moment, the first time she could and did say at a same-sex wedding, “by the authority of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” Thanks be to God!